Bowlful of Memories

- Sushma Sosha Philip

She ran a finger over the rough surface of the object in her hand. The shape was familiar, she knew it, had learnt what it meant on some distant day. But right now, it was eluding her.

Forgetfulness had slowly drawn his drab grey blanket over her mind, taking with him all she had left – the memories. Flashes of lucidity, glimpses of a wonderful past, had led her to the realization that she had led a full life. And unlike others, she actually wanted to remember, to hold on to the moments. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t had her share of pain and sorrow, at times gut wrenching… But when you have to struggle to recall your name, your very identity and the leaves are being viciously torn out from your book of life with alarming frequency, you’ll take anything you get.

“Try once more!” she begged herself, “You know this!” Her finger moved obsessively over the shape, trying to place it, fill the gap that she knew was there, the answer tantalizingly just beyond her grasp.

“Stop playing with your food, Rani.” She started at the sudden noise beside her. Two women in white stood in her room, one straightening her sheet, the other methodically arranging the bottles and strips of capsules on a small table. “She insists on eating her cereal without milk and then plays with the alphabets,” the woman near her bed commented to the other one with a resigned sigh. Cereal. Alphabet cereal. That’s it! That’s what she was holding! A letter… now all she had to do was figure out which one. Once more she ran her finger over it. Curved, with a straight line closing the semi-circle and extending beyond it, below it.

Instead of the name of the letter, the image that flashed in her mind was of a russet sphere, unevenly dappled with pale yellow. A woman was holding it in her hand and smiling, asking her, “Do you want some?” Some what? What was it? She did not know, could not remember. Frustration shook her, filling her with the unattainable desire to reach into her mind and join the dots. But then the memory continued playing in her mind, fuzzy, faded, like some old movie reel. “You can’t just bite into it Rani,” the woman laughed gently, “Here, let me split it for you.” Rough, uneven halves, filled with what looked like polished rubies, in her hands; pink, sticky, cool juices running down her chin; sweet, sweet pulp and grainy seeds fragmenting between her teeth; leathery pomegranate rind thrown into the bushes outside the window. Pomegranate. The word flashed into her mind, unbidden. Suddenly, she recognized the shape she was holding – ‘P’.

Relief washed over her like in a cool wave, contrasting sharply with the warm sense of elation that sprang up. So all was not lost. The disease seemed to have overlooked the darkest recesses of her mind, where her earliest memories were stored. At least for now. She wanted to dust them off and relive them one last time before they too were pulled into the ever-expanding vortex of forgotten times.

Eagerly she reached into the bowl once more, wondering what she would unearth this time. The shape she retrieved was all curves; meandering, but not for long; weaving its way to nowhere on her palm. This time, it was a sound that she recalled first, piercing through the grey mists shrouding her sub-conscious, a soft, constant ‘ssssssss’… She remembered that she had a task that day, an important one. Her mother had given her the responsibility of turning the gas burner off when the pressure cooker whistled. She peeped into the kitchen, warily looking at the squat metal contraption precariously balanced on the stove, emitting the monotonous hiss, steam rising in a cloud from the orifice at the top. She was afraid… afraid that it would burst into a million pieces, afraid that the steam would scald her as it escaped, afraid that the high-pitched whistle would not stop even if she turned the knob, afraid that she would do it wrong and ruin the soft nuggets of meat floating in fragrant juices inside. ‘PssshEEEEEEEEEEEEE!’ She jumped. The whistle took her by surprise. Squinting and scrunching up her face, as if that would help muffle the piercing noise, she rushed into the kitchen and raising herself up on the tips of her toes, turned the knob, switching off the gas supply. The shrill noise dulled to a gentle escape of steam and the kitchen was filled with the heady smell of cooked meat. Today they would feast on rich, red mutton curry. She had saved dinner.

‘Ssssssss…’ the noise continued, steam escaping. “Ssssss…” she echoed her mind. ‘Sssssss…’ ‘Ssssss…’ S! That’s what the letter was! ‘S’. Triumphant once more, she popped the piece of cereal in her mouth, allowing it to soften in her saliva, before mashing it to the top of her palate and finally swallowing it, her fingers already sifting through the bowl for the next letter.

This time it was all angles, three pronged, almost weapon like. Though, the edges, she noticed as she scraped them with her nail, were blunt. Smooth and curved. She had felt that texture before, the pebble-like quality of it mesmerising her, an instant before sharp shards dug into the delicate baby skin of her palms, her hands covered with pungent goo. That was the first time someone raised their voice to her. “I told you to be careful!” her father yelled. “That was our last egg!” She hadn’t got an omelette for dinner that night and the smell of her clumsiness remained infused in her hands for two whole days. She threw the ‘E’ she held onto the floor.

She began recognizing alphabets faster now, the memories keeping pace.

‘B’ for bananas, not ripe, butter-soft and yellow, but dehydrated to a dark brown in the blazing sun, flavours enhanced manifold, dripping with golden honey and dusted with shavings of coconut.

‘R’ for her first meal – rice, the plump grains mixed with creamy yoghurt, studded with black mustard seeds. Salty and sour with a fleeting hint of sweetness, it was a study in contrasts.

Her lips puckered with the tartness of the tamarinds she used to steal from the tree growing in the compound next door, the flavour memory lifting the dull cardboard taste of a cereal ‘T’ slowly dissolving on the tip of her tongue.

‘D’, ‘F’, ‘F’ again, half a ‘C’, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. Moments, a lifetime ago, remembered and forgotten.

And then she picked ‘A’. ‘A’ was significant, she knew. The letters of the alphabet began with ‘A’ and also the name of her sickness. That was one name that was beyond her. Her diagnosis had been relatively recent. She saw only fragments of the memory, like reflections on a shattered mirror. Alone, in a bleak room with pale walls and a pale man; tears, hot, messy and wet, from her eyes, nose, mouth; the nutty smell of the thick, sweet filter coffee she treated herself to when she returned home, the fluffy foam leaving but a ghost of an impression on her tongue and the milky, sickly sweet liquid, scalding its way down her throat – numbing the shock. Some memories were best left broken.

Dipping her hand into the bowl again, she found only crumbs and with them, incomplete reminiscences. The shroud fell over her mind again. Her last thought before she succumbed to slumber was that, of course she had her cereal dry. Milk would have dissolved her bowlful of memories.

Sushma is a 23-year-old corporate lawyer from Chennai. She has been writing for the best part of 10 years, albeit irregularly. Her interest in all things culinary often reflect in her writing.